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The Five Foot Bookshelf: Would These Books Be On Your List of Life Changers?

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If I was a relevant fish I would certainly have been hooked by this item on Blackwell’s website.  The original five foot bookshelf (a collection of 70 books that if piled one on top of the other would reach only to five feet) was compiled in 1909 by a Harvard Professor.  This is a modern take on the idea.

“70 books, one life-changing collection, put together by a panel of booksellers and writers. Immerse yourself in the best writing through time, place and imagination.”

What does it even mean to be changed by a book.  Is it enough to enjoy a book?  To be moved by it? Horrified? Educated? Politicised?  At the end of the day these are just personal choices,  like all book lists.  Fun though! And what a strange, eclectic list this is.  With some canonical works, almost no translations and definitely no children’s books.  How many people would claim that their lives were changed (ie enriched, enhanced, made magical) by A.A. Milne and Pooh bear.  Quite a number I imagine.    Tbh I was a bit horrified to see how few of these books  I’ve actually read!  Only one-quarter.

Which books would be in your life changing collection?


Here are some of Blackwell’s life changing books I’ve read:

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems.   Yes I have the edition which is a facsimile of Plath’s original manuscript and containing a foreword by the poet’s daughter, Frieda Hughes.  The order and content of this collection caused much consternation among Plath devotees and continues to do so, since the first publication of these poems came after Sylvia’s death on February 11th 1963.  Until that time her words had lived in a black binder on the poet’s desk.   and were ordered to begin with the word ‘Love’ and end with the word ‘Spring,’   covering the end of her marriage to Hughes and the beginning of a new life.     After her death, Hughes for reasons of his own made changes to the manuscript thus instigating the ire of the feminist movement which never forgave him.  Frieda Hughes in her fascinating foreword says she wishes to celebrate her mother’s life, not eternally commemorate her death.    Red Comet:The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark is the definitive biography of the poet which does exactly that.

Beloved by Toni Morrison  This book has been described by Margaret Atwood as a testament to the ongoing ravages of slavery.  Set in the mid 1800s a child returns to haunt the place where her mother was enslaved.  It’s a tough read.

Citizen: An American Lyric  Claudia Rankine   This collection of poems, prose and artwork brings home the true cost and ubiquity of racism as experienced even by those we perceive as ‘successful’.  This book won many prizes including among others the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015, National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, 2015, Pen Open Book Award, 2015.

Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit  One of my favourite writers, activist, feminist and author Rebecca Solnit’s essays reject the easy tropes of despair and nihilism with rigorous research, lucid prose and sometimes plain common sense.     ” … What kind of humanity would survive paradise? … Paradise does not require of us courage, selflessness creativity, passion: paradise in all accounts is passive, is sedative, and if you read carefully, soulless.”

Middlemarch, George Eliot.  The original ‘state of the nation’ novel.  I read it many years ago but never forgot Edward Casuabon with his endless key to the world’s mythologies that he was writing, and writing, and writing.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde.  We would all like such a portrait in the attic, no? Maybe not. What would we pledge to look eternally youthful?  And who cares about what’s inside as long the outside looks good?   Truly, a book for the instagram age, as relevant now as when it was published in 1890.

Findings, Kathleen Jamie. A lovely collection of travel and nature poetry from Scottish poet Jamie who recently was quoted as saying: ‘I haven’t written a poem for five years.’  This is frightening. If we lose nature, do we also lose the poets of nature?

Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez.   The academic and feminist author who got Jane Austen put on a banknote continues to raise awareness of numberless attitudes and factors which still militate against women, even in the 21st century.  My review here.

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf.  Also: To the Lighthouse

1984, George Orwell

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (I’m not sure these books would make it to my list –  why not Ursula Le Guin or Tolkein? Or C.S. Lewis?)

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson.  The first and still definitive work on ecological destruction.

The Complete Poems, Emily Dickinson.  Of course.

The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot. Inevitably.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett.  I was fortunate enough to see Patrick Stuart and Ian McKellen do the stage play in London years ago.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel.  Yes, but I haven’t read the rest of the trilogy.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.  The ultimate novel of the outsider.

That’s pretty much it out of the ones I’ve read.  Only 17 out of 70.  Oh the shame of it.  No medals for the rune.   Still, the world is full of a lot of books and no-one can read them all.    Why is Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation of Anna Akhmatova’s poems not here?  I am not able to read Russian so without that book I would have no access to Akhmatova’s work.  That has been very life changing for me.



And here are some of Blackwell’s life changing books that  I haven’t read:

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie.  I haven’t read any of Christie’s novels – I’m not much of a one for crime fiction –  although I love watching the televised versions.

Anna Karenina, Tolstoy (I know, I know … I’m getting to it, honest!)

Arctic Dreams, Barry Holstun Lopez

As I Lay Dying  William Faulkner

Autumn, Ali Smith

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

Brit (ish) Afua Hirsch

Capital, Karl Marx

Gender Trouble, Judith Butler

Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil

Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Max Porter (Yes, but why not H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald?)

Orientalism, Edward W. Said

Paradise Lost, John Milton

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

Ulysses, James Joyce


Apart from Paradise Lost most of these books were published from just before the turn of the 20th century onwards.  So ‘time’ as in  “immersing yourself through time” only goes back 100 years or so.    Poor old Dickens and Shakespeare.  They don’t get a look in edgewise!  If you are interested to look at the whole list, it is here.


7 responses to “The Five Foot Bookshelf: Would These Books Be On Your List of Life Changers?”

  1. All book lists are very subective and am sure if I had to make a list, it probably wouldn’t look anything like this one. I have only read 8 of the 70; there are titles that I haven’t heard of, so have probably missed some treats. Having said that, there are some great “crime” novels out there and Agatha Christie’s And Then There were None is very clever if you have never read it

  2. Thank you for your list of books. I’ve read a lot of the books, but I have others I consider just as interesting. It’s always good to have these suggestions.

  3. I have to say I have not read them all. ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ certainly changed a lot of opinions, if not lives.
    My literature ‘memories’ include ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, and ‘In Cold Blood’, among many others. But the book that really changed my life was ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’. That made me Left-Wing politically, something that endures to this day.
    Thank you for following my blog.
    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

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The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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